Brahms Times 2: Hamelin Displays Mettle And Might

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Marc-André Hamelin performed both Brahms piano concertos at the Bellingham Festival. (Photo: Catherine Fowler)
By Thomas May

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Rhapsodizing about his summer getaway in the lakeside resort of Pörtschach, Brahms observed that “the melodies fly so thick you must watch out not to step on one.” It’s easy to imagine the composer armed with a melody-catching butterfly net and setting out for a stroll through the idyllic campus in coastal Washington, where the Bellingham Festival of Music takes place over three weeks each July.

Brahms’ music attracted a near-capacity audience to the concert hall at the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center on July 14, when Marc-André Hamelin undertook back-to-back performances of the two piano concertos with the Bellingham Festival Orchestra led by Michael Palmer. It marked the culmination of a Brahms mini-festival within this festival devoted to orchestral and chamber music. Two nights before his concerto program, Hamelin had joined with the Calidore String Quartet, the festival’s resident chamber ensemble, for Brahms’  Piano Quintet in F minor; Palmer also conducted the Second Symphony in an earlier concert.

The impressive view from Washington’s Bellingham Bay takes in nearby Canada’s towering Coast Mountains.

Bellingham lies about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, tucked amid mountains, forests, and a serenely picturesque bay in northwest Washington. The concert hall that serves as the main venue for the festival’s performances is perched in a corner of the sculpture-studded public university campus and commands a vista of the bay and Canada’s Coast Mountains on one side, tall evergreens standing sentry on the other.

Artistic director Michael Palmer founded the Bellingham Music Festival in 1993.

Palmer has been a major cultural presence in Bellingham since 1993, when he decided to found a summer music festival in the region between Seattle and Vancouver (starting out with a budget of a mere $100,000). Mentored by Robert Shaw at the start of his career as an assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, Palmer is the festival’s artistic director, presiding over an essentially conservative program of standard repertoire. (The 2019 edition, the festival’s 26th season, included one world premiere, by the bassist-composer David Arend.) The festival orchestra includes musicians from across North America, among them in this year’s ensemble a prominent contingent from the Atlanta Symphony.

Hamelin, renowned for his alliance of musical intellect with imagination and an independent attitude shored up by formidable technique, he turned the challenge of performing both Brahms piano concertos into an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of Brahms’ understanding of his role as an artist – and on different vantage points from which to consider his achievement.

Hamelin’s tireliess questioning yielded countless insights. (Sim Cannety-Clarke)

More than a quarter century separates the period when Brahms worked on ideas that eventually took form as the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and his completion of the Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. Hamelin plunged into the former with a spirit of tireless questioning, playing his first entry with a dark intimacy that stamped much of his reading of the first two movements. He thundered thrillingly when called to do so, but free of the fulminating pose so often elicited by this music. The main theme had a touch of desperation and stood in pointed contrast to moments of deep introspection that made one feel like an eavesdropper on a pained confession. These intimate moments suggested the future miniaturist, struggling – at times downright awkwardly – with a large-scale format.

Unfortunately, the problematic acoustics of the 640-seat amphitheaterstyle hall led to odd and distracting sonic artifacts – the trumpet overpowering the keyboard, the concertmaster entirely drowned out as heard from the very center of the hall. This proved especially troublesome in the opening movement of the First Concerto, though balances generally improved thereafter, allowing this listener to savor some particularly delectable musicianship from the winds.

Brahms’ first piano concerto emerged in the 1850s.

Hamelin’s thoughtful pedaling and nuanced use of color yielded countless insights along the way. There was lots of intellectual fascination as well, with phrasing that drew attention to points of structural design and innovation. Brahms used to present these works in concerts where he alternated as the soloist and the conductor. Hamelin seemed to embrace both perspectives at once, always keeping the distant horizon in view, as in the implicit connection he drew between the signature trills of the first movement and their echoes later in the score.

Emphasizing the neo-Baroque flavor of the finale, the pianist seemed to suggest that here, by aligning himself with a vision of the past reborn, Brahms at last found his path forward – more effectively than in the emulation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony framing the first movement. Hamelin’s remarkable equality of tone across both hands gave the rondo theme a determined vigor that encapsulated this notion of resolve.

After intermission, Hamelin returned to play one of the vintage products of the composer’s maturity. If Brahms had something to prove in the earlier work, here he was basking in a sense of purpose firmly achieved. The opening measures of the B-flat Concerto (with a superb contribution from Brice Andrus on horn) seemed naturally to call for the piano’s interchanges, already glowing with the impression of confidence that imbues this later portrait of the artist.

Palmer, who had opted for a very stately and Romantic maestoso in the First Concerto’s long opening movement, stressed textural clarity throughout the Second, in accordance with Brahms’ more translucent orchestration.

His second was a product of the ’80s.

It felt like Hamelin himself was more at home, or at any rate at ease, with the Second (which he recorded with the Dallas Symphony and Andrew Litton in 2006), and more willing to take risks. The performance invited a virtual catalog of his keyboard strengths. Along with the exquisite poetry of his light touch at the Andante’s point of entry and in his duet with the clarinets in that movement, Hamelin brought an almost jazz-like flexibility and expressivity to Brahms’ rhythmic structures. He offered all the grandeur and virtuosic fire you could want. The most passionate passages of the Scherzo now seemed like a reconsideration of aspects of the D minor Concerto from an Olympian perspective. Nor was he limited to notions of loftiness. The amiable gait of the finale, well abetted by Palmer’s sensitive shaping of the orchestra, allowed the pianist to explore the music’s humor.

This was only the second time Hamelin has ventured the two Brahms concertos in a single concert. He did so last year with the Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra and Dimitris Botinis in Moscow. And on July 28, he will again perform the pair, with the Orchestre Métropolitain and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at the 2019 Festival International de Lanaudière.

Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. He is the English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival and contributes to the New York Times, the Seattle Times, and Musical America, along with other publications. He blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.